Officers carry out the seizure of a 7.5-million-euro farm as part of an investigation into illegal gangmastering | Photo: ANSA/Gorgonzola finance police
Officers carry out the seizure of a 7.5-million-euro farm as part of an investigation into illegal gangmastering | Photo: ANSA/Gorgonzola finance police

A court has confirmed that the seizure of properties belonging to a farming company in Italy was legal. Its leaders allegedly exploited and abused African farmworkers. The migrants reportedly had to work 12 hours a day, without a day off, for €4.50 an hour. They were also subjected to racist insults and not provided protective gear against the coronavirus.

The agricultural startup StraBerry, which uses solar greenhouses to grow berries in the Milan area, reportedly employed around 100 African migrants under exploitative conditions. Because of this, their properties were seized two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, a preliminary investigative judge in Milan confirmed a request by the prosecutor to seize the company.

Migrants subjected to 'system of fear'

Judge Roberto Crepaldi said the migrant workers on the farms were underpaid and forced to work shifts as long as 12 hours a day, without a day off, and without even water unless they brought their own bottle with them.

In addition, the workers were not provided with any personal protective equipment (PPE) in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, nor showers or bathrooms. They were also allegedly subjected to racist insults and "a system of fear," the judge said.  

Seven people are under investigation, including the company's 31-year-old founder, Guglielmo Stagno d'Alcontres, a Bocconi business school graduate from Messina.

Migrants only paid €4.50 per hour 

The judge said d'Alcontres oversaw a system of illegal exploitation, in which the migrants were generally paid €4.50 per hour.

The pay stubs were reportedly issued incorrectly -- the migrants worked far more hours than their pay stubs said. The workers were also required to work two unpaid trial days.

Testimony of a worker

What was it like for the migrants to work for StraBerry? 

The testimony that Mohamed, one of the migrant workers, gave investigators provides a window into the working conditions at StraBerry.

Mohamed, a migrant from Sierra Leone, said that when he tried to exercise his rights and get a fair wage, one of the bosses "violently pushed me, trying to throw me out of the office, and while he was pushing me he kept getting in my face and shouting and spitting at me in the face." He said that his bosses were "very offensive, always. They used very vulgar swear words and racial epithets, and called us animals."

Outhouse only for Italians

According to Mohamed, "hygiene facilities consisted of an outhouse, exclusively for use by Italian workers" -- there were no restrooms for the African workers at all.

For washing, he said, the African staff were provided with "a tyre of water outside the warehouse."

He said some migrant workers had to work with pesticides "without any of the necessary training or skills and without using the necessary protective equipment."

Mohamed said that no precautions were taken by management to prevent a possible spread of COVID-19. "No one wore a face mask, no one wore gloves, there was no social distancing between us workers. We worked on rows of strawberry plants, which are very closer together, and as a result we were all close to each other," he told investigators.

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